We’re really excited to bring you an excerpt from Anthony Ryan’s Queen of Fire! It’s chapter 2. You can find chapter 1 on Anthony’s website.
The Kuritai’s name was Twenty-Seven, though Alucius had yet to hear him say it. In fact he had yet to hear the slave-elite say anything. He reacted to instruction with instant obedience and was the perfect servant, fetching, carrying, and cleaning with no sign of fatigue or even the faintest expression of complaint.
“My gift to you,” Lord Darnel had said that day they had dragged Alucius from the depths of the Blackhold, expecting death and gasping in astonishment when they removed his shackles and he found his own father’s hands helping him to his feet. “A servant of peerless perfectitude,” Darnel went on, gesturing at the Kuritai. “You know, I think I’m growing fond of your wordsmithing ways, little poet.”
“Yes, I’m very well this fine morning,” Alucius told Twenty-Seven as he laid out the breakfast. “How nice of you to ask.”
They were on the veranda overlooking the harbour, the sun rising over the horizon to paint the ships a golden hue he knew would have sent Alornis scurrying to fetch her canvas and brushes. He had chosen the house for the view, a merchant’s domicile no doubt, its owner presumably dead or enslaved along with his family. Varinshold was full of empty houses now, more to choose from should he grow tired of this one, but he found himself too fond of the view, especially as it covered the entirety of the harbour.
Fewer and fewer ships, he thought, counting the vessels with accustomed precision. Ten slavers, five traders, four warships. The slavers sat highest in the water, their copious holds empty, as they had been for weeks, ever since the great column of smoke had risen to blot the sun from the sky for days on end. Alucius had been trying to write something about it, but found the words failed to flow every time he put pen to paper. How does one write a eulogy for a forest?
Twenty-Seven placed the last plate on the table and stood back as Alucius reached for his cutlery, tasting the mushrooms first, finding them cooked to perfection with a little garlic and butter. “Excellent as always, my deadly friend.”
Twenty-Seven stared out of the window and said nothing.
“Ah yes, it’s visiting day,” Alucius went on around a mouthful of bacon. “Thank you for reminding me. Pack the salve and the new books, if you would.”
Twenty-Seven instantly turned away and went about his instructions, moving to the bookcase first. The house’s owner had maintained a reasonable library, largely, Alucius assumed, for appearances sake as few of the volumes showed much sign of having ever been read. They were mostly popular romances and a few of the more well-known histories, none suited to his purposes, which obliged him to spend hours ransacking the larger houses for more interesting material. There was much to choose from, the Volarians were boundlessly enthusiastic looters but had little interest in books, save as kindling. Yesterday had been particularly fruitful, netting a complete set of Marial’s Astronomical Observations and an inscribed volume he hoped would arouse the interest of one of his charges in particular.
Ten slavers, five traders, four warships, he counted again, turning to the harbour. Two less than yesterday . . . He paused as another vessel came into view, a warship rounding the headland to the south. It seemed to be struggling to make headway through the water, only one sail raised and that, he saw as it came closer, was a ragged thing of soot-blackened canvas. The ship trailed sagging rope through the placid morning swell as it neared the harbour mouth, blocks and shattered beams hanging from her rigging, sparse crew moving about the deck with the stoop of exhausted men. As she weighed anchor Alucius’s eyes picked out numerous scorch marks blackening her hull and many dark brown stains on her untidy deck.
Five warships, he corrected himself. One with an interesting tale to tell, it seems.
* * *
They stopped off at the pigeon coop on the way, finding his sole remaining bird in typically hungry mood. “Don’t bolt it,” he cautioned Blue Feather with a wagging finger but she ignored him, head bobbing as she pecked at the seeds. The coop was situated atop the house of the Blocker’s Guild, the roof spared the fires that had gutted the building thanks to its iron-beamed construction. The surrounding houses hadn’t been so fortunate and the once-busy building where he had come to have his poems printed now rose from streets of rubble and ash. Seen from this vantage point the city resembled a grimy patchwork, islands of intact buildings in a sea of grey-black ruins.
“Sorry if you’re finding it lonely these days,” he told Blue Feather, stroking her fluffy breast. There had been ten of them to begin with, a year ago. Young birds each with a tiny wire clasp about their right leg, strong enough to hold a message.
This had been the first place he had hurried to on release from the Blackhold, finding only three birds still alive. He fed them and disposed of the corpses as Twenty-Seven looked on impassively. It had been a risk leading the slave here to witness his greatest secret, but there was little choice. In truth, he had expected the Kuritai to either cut him down on the spot or shackle him once more for immediate return to captivity. Instead he just stood and watched as Alucius scribbled the coded message on a tiny scrap of parchment before rolling it up and sliding it into the small metal cylinder that would fit onto the bird’s leg clasp.
Varinshold fallen, he had written though he knew it was probably old news to the recipients. Darnel rules. 500 knights & one V division. Twenty-Seven didn’t even turn to watch the bird fly away when Alucius cast it from the rooftop and the expected deathblow had never fallen, not then and not when he released the next bird the night the Volarian fleet set sail for the Meldenean Isles. Twenty-Seven, it appeared, was neither his gaoler nor Darnel’s spy, he was simply his waiting executioner. In any case his worries over what the Kuritai saw had long since faded, along with the hope he might live to see this city liberated . . . and watch Alornis draw again.
He briefly considered sending Blue Feather with his final message, those he reported to would no doubt find the news of the ragged warship interesting, but decided against it. The ship portended a great deal, and it would be better to await discovery of the full story before expending his last link to the outside world.
They climbed down from the rooftop via the ladder on the back wall, making for the only building in Varinshold that seemed to have suffered no damage at all, the squat fortress of black stone sitting in the centre of the city. There had been a bloody battle here, he knew. The Blackhold’s garrison of Fourth Order thugs putting up a surprisingly good fight as they beat back successive waves of Varitai, Aspect Tendris in the thick of the fight, spurring them on to ever-greater feats of courage with unwavering Faith. At least that’s how the story went if you believed the mutterings of the Realm-born slaves. It had finally fallen when the Kuritai were sent in, Aspect Tendris cutting down four of the slave-elite before a dastardly knife in the back laid him low, something Alucius found extremely unlikely, though he did concede the mad bastard had probably gone down fighting.
The Varitai at the gate stepped aside as he approached, Twenty-Seven in tow with his books and various medicines in a sack over his broad shoulder. The interior of the Blackhold was even less edifying than its exterior, a narrow courtyard within grim black walls, Varitai archers posted on the parapet above. Alucius went to the door at the rear of the courtyard, the Varitai guard unlocking it and stepping aside. Inside he followed the damp winding steps down into the vaults. The smell provoked unwelcome memories of his time here, musty rot mingling with the sharp tang of rat piss. The steps ended some twenty feet down, opening out into a torchlit corridor lined by ten cells, each sealed with a heavy iron door. The cells had all been occupied when he was first brought here, now all but two stood empty.
“No,” Alucius replied to Twenty-Seven’s unvoiced question. “I can’t say it is good to be back, my friend.”
He went to the Free Sword seated on a stool at the end of the corridor. It was always the same man, a sour-faced fellow of brawny build who spoke Realm Tongue with all the finesse of a blind mason attempting to carve a masterpiece.
“Which ’un?” he grunted, getting to his feet and putting aside a wine-skin.
“Aspect Dendrish I think,” Alucius replied. “Irksome duties first, I always say.” He concealed a sigh of frustration at the Free Sword’s baffled frown. “The fat man,” he added slowly.
The Free Sword shrugged and moved to the door at the far end of the corridor, keys jangling as he worked the lock. Alucius thanked him with a bow and went inside.
Aspect Dendrish Hendrahl had lost perhaps half his famous weight during captivity, but that still made him considerably fatter than most men. He greeted Alucius with the customary scowl and lack of formality, small eyes narrowed and gleaming in the light from the single candle in the alcove above his bed. “I trust you’ve brought me something more interesting than last time.”
“I believe so, Aspect.” Alucius took the sack from Twenty-Seven and rummaged inside, coming out with a large volume, the title embossed in gold on the leather binding.
“‘Fallacy and Belief,’” the Aspect read as he took the volume. “‘The Nature of God Worship.’ You bring me my own book?”
“Not quite, Aspect. I suggest you look inside.”
Dendrish opened the book, his small eyes peering at the text scribbled on the title page which Alucius knew read: Or ‘Pomposity and Arrogance—The Nature of Aspect Hendrahl’s Scholarship.’
“What is this?” the Aspect demanded.
“I found it at Lord Al Avern’s house,” Alucius told him. “You remember him, no doubt. They called him the Lord of Ink and Scroll, on account his scholarly accomplishments.”
“Accomplishments? The man was an amateur, a mere copier of greater talents.”
“Well, he has much to say on your talents, Aspect. His critique of your treatise on the origin of the Alpiran gods is particularly effusive, and quite elegantly phrased I must say.”
Hendrahl’s plump hands leafed through the book with expert precision, opening it out to reveal a chapter liberally adorned with the late Lord Al Avern’s graceful script. “‘Simply repeats Carvel,’?” the Aspect read in a furious rasp. “This empty-brained ape accuses me of lacking originality.”
“I thought you might find it amusing.” Alucius bowed again and moved to the door.
“Wait!” Hendrahl cast a wary glance at the Free Sword standing outside and levered himself to his feet, not without difficulty. “You must have news, surely.”
“Alas, things have not changed since my last visit, Aspect. Lord Darnel hunts for his son through the ashes of his great crime, we await news of General Tokrev’s glorious victory at Alltor and Admiral Morok’s equally glorious seizure of the Meldenean Isles.”
Hendrahl moved closer, speaking in a barely heard whisper. “Master Grealin, still no word on him?”
It was the one question he always asked and Alucius had given up trying to extract the reason for this interest in the Sixth Order’s store-minder. “None, Aspect. Just like last time.” Oddly, this response always seemed to reassure the Aspect and he nodded, moving back to sit on his bed, his fingers resting on the book, not looking up as Alucius left the cell.
As ever, Aspect Elera proved a contrast to her brother in the Faith, smiling and standing as the door swung open, her slender hands extended in greeting. “Alucius!”
“Aspect.” He always found he had to force the catch from his voice when he saw her, clad in her filthy grey robe they wouldn’t let him replace, the flesh of her ankle red and raw from the shackle. But she always smiled and she was ever glad to see him.
“I brought more salve,” he said, placing the sack on the bed. “For your leg. There’s an apothecary shop on Drover’s Way. Burnt-out, naturally, but it seems the owner had the foresight to hide some stock in his basement.”
“Resourceful as ever, good sir. My thanks.” She sat and rummaged through the sack for a moment, coming out with the small ceramic pot of salve, removing the lid to sniff the contents. “Corr tree oil and honey. Excellent. This will do very well.” She rummaged further and found the books. “Marial!” she exclaimed in a delighted gasp. “I once had a full set. Must be near twenty years since my last reading. You are good to me, Alucius.”
“I endeavour to do my best, Aspect.”
She set the book aside and looked up at him, her face as clean as her meagre water ration allowed. Lord Darnel had been very particular in his instructions regarding her confinement, a consequence of her less-than-complimentary words during his first and only visit here. So, whilst Aspect Dendrish was treated to only the cruelty of indifference and a restricted diet, Aspect Elera was shackled to the wall with a length of chain that restricted her movements to no more than two square feet of her tiny cell. As yet, however, he had not heard her voice a single complaint.
“How goes the poem?” she asked him.
“Slowly, Aspect. I fear these tumultuous times deserve a better chronicler.”
“A pity. I was looking forward to reading it. And your father?”
“Sends his regards,” Alucius lied. “Though I see him rarely these days. Busy as he is with the Lord’s work.”
“Ah. Well, be sure to pass along my respects.”
At least she won’t call him traitor when this is done, he thought. Though she may be the only one.
“Tell me, Alucius,” she went on. “Do your explorations ever take you to the southern quarter?”
“Rarely, Aspect. The pickings are hardly rich, and in any case there’s little of it left to pick through.”
“Pity. There was an inn there, the Black Boar I believe it was called. If you’re in need of decent wine, I believe the owner kept a fine selection of Cumbraelin vintages in a secret place beneath the floorboards, so as not to trouble the King’s excise men, you understand.”
Decent wine. How long had it been since he’d tasted anything but the most acid vinegar? The Volarians may have had little interest in the city’s books but had scraped every shelf clean of wine in the first week of occupation, forcing him into an unwelcome period of sobriety.
“Very kind, Aspect,” he said. “Though I confess my surprise at your knowledge of such matters.”
“You hear all manner of things as a healer. People will spill their deepest secrets to those they hope can take their pain away.” She met his gaze and there was a new weight to her voice when she added, “I really wouldn’t linger too long in seeking out the wine, good sir.”
“I… shan’t, Aspect.”
The Free Sword rapped his keys against the door, voicing an impatient grunt. “I must go,” he told her, taking the empty sack.
“A pleasure, as always, Alucius.” She held out a hand and he knelt to kiss it, a courtly ritual they had adopted over the weeks. “Do you know,” she said as he rose and went to the door. “I believe if Lord Darnel were truly a courageous man, he would have killed us by now.”
“Raising his own fief against him in the process,” Alucius replied. “Even he is not so foolish.”
She nodded, smiling once again as the Free Sword closed the door, her final words faint but still audible, and insistent. “Be sure to enjoy the wine!”
* * *
Lord Darnel sent for him in the afternoon, forestalling an exploration of the southern quarter. The Fief Lord had taken over the only surviving wing of the palace, a gleaming collection of marble walls and towers rising from the shattered ruin that surrounded it. The walls were partly covered in scaffolding as masons strove to remold the remnants into a convincingly self-contained building, as if it had always been this way. Darnel was keen to wipe away as much of the inconvenient past as possible. A small army of slaves laboured continually in pursuit of the new owner’s vision, the ruined wings cleared to make room for an ornamental garden complete with looted statuary and as yet unblossomed flowerbeds.
Alucius was always surprised at his own lack of fear whenever he had the misfortune to find himself in the Fief Lord’s presence, the man’s temper was legendary and his fondness for the death warrant made old King Janus seem the model of indulgent rule. However, for all his evident scorn and contempt, Darnel needed him alive. At least until Father wins his war for him.
He was admitted to the new throne room by two of Darnel’s burlier knights, fully armoured and smelling quite dreadful despite all the lavender oil with which they slathered themselves. As yet it seemed no blacksmith had solved the perennial problem of the foul odours arising from prolonged wearing of armour. Darnel sat on his new throne, a finely carved symphony of oak and velvet, featuring an ornately decorated back that reached fully seven feet high. Though yet to formally name himself king, Darnel had been quick to attire himself with as many royal trappings as possible, King Malcius’s crown being chief among them, though Alucius fancied it sat a bit too loose on his head. It shifted on his brow now as the Fief Lord leaned forward to address the man standing before him, a wiry and somewhat bedraggled fellow in the garb of a Volarian sailor, a black cloak about his shoulders. Alucius’s fear reasserted itself at the sight of man standing behind the sailor. Division Commander Mirvek stood tall and straight in his black enamel breastplate, heavy, scarred features impassive as always when in the Fief Lord’s presence. Darnel might need him alive, but the Volarian certainly didn’t. He took some heart from the sight of his father, standing with his arms crossed at Darnel’s side.
“A shark?” Lord Darnel said to the sailor, his voice heavy with scorn. “You lost your fleet to a shark?”
The sailor stiffened, his face betraying a man suffering insult from one he considered little more than a favoured slave. “A red shark,” the sailor replied in good but accented Realm Tongue. “Commanded by an elverah.”
“Elverah?” Darnel asked. “I thought this fabled elverah was engaged in delaying General Tokrev at Alltor?”
“It is not a name, at least not these days,” Mirvek explained. “It means witch or sorceress, born of an old legend . . .”
“I could give a whore’s cunt hair for your legend!” Darnel snapped. “Why do you bring me this defeated dog with his wild tales of witches and sharks?”
“I am no liar!” the sailor retorted, face reddening. “I am witness to a thousand deaths or more at the hands of that bitch and her creature.”
“Control your dog,” Darnel told the Division Commander quietly. “Or he’ll get a whipping as a lesson.”
The sailor bridled again but said no more when Mirvek placed a restraining hand on his shoulder, murmuring something in his own language. Alucius’s Volarian was poor but he was sure he detected the word ‘patience’ in the Commander’s soothing tone.
“Ah, little poet,” Darnel said, noticing Alucius. “Here’s one worthy of a verse or two. The great Volarian fleet sunk by a Dark-blessed shark answering the whim of a witch.”
“Elverah,” the sailor said again before adding something in his own language.
“What did he say?” Darnel asked the Division Commander in a weary tone.
“Born of fire,” the Commander translated. “The sailors say the witch was born of fire, because of her burns.”
“Her face.” The sailor played a hand over his own features. “Burned, vile to look upon. A creature not a woman.”
“And I thought you people were absent all superstition,” Darnel said before turning back to Alucius. “What do you imagine this means for our great enterprise, little poet?”
“It would seem the Meldenean Islands did not fall so easily after all, my lord,” Alucius replied in a flat tone. He saw his father shift at Darnel’s side, catching his eye with a warning glare, however Darnel seemed untroubled by the observation.
“Quite so. Despite the many promises made by our allies, they fail to secure me the Isles and instead bring dogs into my home barking nonsense.” He pointed a steady finger at the sailor. “Get him out of here,” he told Mirvek.
“Come forward, little poet.” Darnel beckoned him with a languid wave when the Volarians had made their exit. “I’d have your views on another tall tale.”
Alucius strode forward and went to one knee before the throne. He was continually tempted to abandon all pretence of respect but knew the Lord’s tolerance had its limits, regardless of his usefulness.
“Here.” Darnel picked up a spherical object lying at the foot of his throne and tossed it to Alucius. “Familiar is it not?”
Alucius caught the item and turned it over it in his hands. A Renfaelin knight’s helmet, enamelled in blue with several dents and a broken visor. “Lord Wenders,” he said, recalling that Darnel had made his chief lapdog a gift of an unwanted suit of armour.
“Indeed,” Darnel said. “Found four days ago with a crossbow bolt through his eye. I assume you have little trouble guessing the origin of his demise.”
“The Red Brother.” Alucius concealed his grin. Burned the Urlish to nothing and still you couldn’t get him.
“Yes,” Darnel said. “Curious thing, they tended his wounds before they killed him. What’s even more curious is the tale told by the only survivor of his company. He didn’t last very long, I’m afraid, victim of a crushed and festered arm. But he swore to the Departed that the entire company had been buried in a rock-slide called forth by the Red Brother’s fat master.”
Grealin. Alucius kept all expression from his face as he asked, “Called forth, my lord?”
“Yes, with the Dark, if you can believe it. First the tale of the Dark-afflicted brother, now the ballad of the witch’s shark. All very strange, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I would, my lord. Most certainly.”
Darnel reclined in his throne, regarding Alucius with arch scrutiny. “Tell me, in all your dealings with our cherished surviving Aspects, did they ever make mention of this fat master and his Dark gifts?”
“Aspect Dendrish asks for books, and food. Aspect Elera asks for nothing. They make no mention of this master . . .”
Darnel glanced at Alucius’s father. “Grealin, my lord,” Lakrhil Al Hestian said.
“Yes, Grealin.” Darnel returned his gaze to Alucius. “Grealin.”
“I recall the name, my lord. I believe Lord Al Sorna made mention of him during our time together in the Usurper’s Revolt. He minded the Sixth Order’s stores, I believe.”
Darnel’s face lost all expression, draining of colour, as it often did at mention of the name Al Sorna, something Alucius knew well and counted on to provide suitable distraction from further astute questioning. Today, however, the Fief Lord was not so easily diverted.
“Store-minder or no,” he grated after a moment. “It now seems he’s a pile of ash.” He pulled something from the pocket of his silk robe and tossed it to Alucius; a medallion on a chain of plain metal, charred but intact. The Blind Warrior. “Your father’s scouts found this amongst the ashes in a pyre near Wenders’s body. It’s either the fat master’s or the Red Brother’s, and I doubt we’d ever get that lucky.”
No, Alucius agreed silently. You never would.
“Our Volarian allies are extremely interested in any whisper of the Dark,” Darnel told him. “Paying huge sums for slaves rumoured to be afflicted with it. Imagine what they’ll do to your friends in the Blackhold if they suspect they have knowledge of more. The next time you visit them show them this medallion, tell them this tall tale, and report back to me every word they say.”
He got to his feet, walking towards Alucius with a slow gate, face quivering a little now, lips wet with spittle. They were roughly of equal height, but Darnel was considerably broader, and a seasoned killer. Somehow, though, Alucius still felt no fear as he loomed closer.
“This farce has dragged on long enough,” the Fief Lord rasped. “I ride forth tonight with every knight in my command to hunt down the Red Brother and secure my son. Whilst I am gone you will make sure those sanctimonious shits know I’ll happily hand them over to our allies to see them flayed skinless if it’ll drag their secrets forth, Aspects or no.”
In the thrilling conclusion to the “deftly and originally executed” (Booklist) New York Times bestselling trilogy, Vaelin Al Sorna must help his Queen reclaim her Realm. Only his enemy has a dangerous new collaborator, one with powers darker than Vaelin has ever encountered…
End of Excerpt
Find our review of Blood Song, the first book in the Raven’s Shadow Trilogy here.
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